The Two Towers is my favorite film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While most people either preferred the pitch-perfect styling of the first film, or the epic conclusion of the third, for me I thought the middle chapter stood out in an interesting way. I feel like a lot of the film’s success owed itself to how writer/director Peter Jackson was able to take a book in which little happens and craft it into a satisfying story arc which fit perfectly into the trilogy but also stood alone as a unique accomplishment. He took the handful of major events in the story and fleshed them out, allowing him to focus much more on character and drama and less on sticking to the detail of the text, and it really showed off his (and his team’s) writing skills. I had high hopes that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second film of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy would follow in the footsteps of The Two Towers, and while it’s definitely an excellent film, it lacks the creativity and emotion of his previous middle movie.
The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and all the other dwarves are still on the run, pursued by Azog and his band of orcs while making their way towards the Lonely Mountain, the abandoned dwarf kingdom and current home of Smaug, a fearsome dragon. Along the way they have a variety of encounters, most of which will be intimately familiar from anyone who read the book as much as I did when I was a kid. They stop at the house of the shapeshifter Beorn, battle giant spiders in the forest of Mirkwood, are captured by Wood Elves, and pass through depressing Lake-town before they can finally arrive at the Lonely Mountain. The dwarves and Bilbo have to undertake most of this journey alone, as Gandalf leaves them to investigate the Necromancer, a sorcerer rumored to be building an army in the fortress of Dol Guldur.
Our heroes from the first film actually take a bit of a backseat to some of the “new” characters this time around, though the returning cast is still solid, particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin. They’re joined this time around by Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn, who has one scene in the film and made basically no impression on me, despite being a bigger character from the book. Luke Evans fares much better as Bard the Bowman, a citizen of Lake-town who smuggles the dwarves into town and has an important role to play in the final film. Evans gives Bard a soulful, sorrowful quality that tells us much more about the state of Lake-town than we could learn from the Master of the town (Stephen Fry), who lazes in his lavish rooms while his citizens barely manage to scrape by. And then there are the elves. We briefly met Lee Pace’s Thranduil in the first film, the elven king who refused to help the dwarves when they were first attacked by Smaug and who now imprisons Thorin and company in an attempt to keep them from their quest.
Thrandui is not the only elf in the film, however, as he is joined by a pair of younger elves who help give The Desolation of Smaug its narrative force: Thranduil’s son Legolas (Orlando Bloom reprising his role from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a new character created for the film. The inclusion of these two characters marks both the film’s biggest deviation from the book and the film’s most creative bit of storytelling. It’s fantastic to see Bloom back as Legolas, years before his partnership with Gimli, whose sole concern is the protection of his home regardless of who might suffer because of his inaction. Tauriel, who was added by Peter Jackson to give the film a much-needed female presence, disagrees with her friend Legolas, both on principle and specifically because she may have fallen in love with Kili (Aidan Turner), known online as the “sexy dwarf”, who has definitely fallen for her. In addition to Legolas simply being a familiar face, he and Tauriel give some much needed depth to the otherwise faceless elves of Tolkein’s book, whether in the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle, or in the class dynamic between Tauriel and Thranduil, or in the debates between the two over isolationism versus intervention. The movie is considerably more interesting and entertaining with them in it.
It also helps that having two elves as major characters seriously ups the quality of the action sequences. Particularly fantastic is the dwarves’ barrel escape from Mirkwood, which has been transformed from a fun passage in the book into a major action setpiece, with both the elves and the orcs pursuing the dwarves as the barrels race down the river, plunging off of waterfalls or tumbling into the air. It’s visually stunning, both exciting and funny, and gives us moments of character growth as well. The elves provide a visual counterpoint to the dwarves, and make the rhythms of the action more interesting merely by their presence, whether in this section of the film or in another later. It’s by far the best action sequence of the Hobbit trilogy thus far. The spider sequence actually felt a little flat by comparison, taking a big moment of bravery for Bilbo from the book and diminishing it slightly for the film. As for the action at the end of the film, which I won’t spoil, it felt largely unnecessary, as though it was simply created in order to give the film some action to end on because of their choice of stopping point.
Unfortunately, unlike The Two Towers, The Desolation of Smaug feels much more like a middle chapter than it should. Most everything that happens either feels like a continuation of a point from the first film or setup for something in the last. While individual events along the dwarves’ journey work well in the book, in the film they largely come off as filler (even if they’re not). It’s interesting that the overriding opinion I’ve heard from people about the film is that it’s very “long”, despite being 8 minutes shorter than its predecessor. A film’s length is an entirely subjective feeling, because a short film can feel long if it lacks content while a long film can fly by if it keeps the viewer engaged. Many of the events of the film are just stepping stones on the way to the trilogy’s conclusion, meant to be passed over along the journey, rather than each feeling like a necessary stop on the road to something larger. Where each aspect of the story in The Two Towers built on each other in order to add weight to the narrative, each encounter in The Desolation of Smaug feels strangely isolated, no matter how well they’re executed. Thank goodness for Legolas and Tauriel, who are the strand holding these separate events together.
However, The Desolation of Smaug does have something going for it that gives the film a much needed boost in its last half-hour or so. Smaug himself, the titular dragon who invaded the Lonely Mountain and made himself a bed of gold, is a wonder to behold. He is a truly stunning and remarkable creation, combining a spectacular design with the voice and performance of Benedict Cumberbatch and the best that visual effects can provide to create one of the greatest dragons ever seen onscreen. (Not the best, however. That would be Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer.) Smaug is to this film what Gollum was to An Unexpected Journey, a shot in the arm for the film and a boost of energy which in many ways saves the movie. I could spend hours just watching him move through his mounds of gold, without even getting to listen to Cumberbatch’s confident voice which can be both charming and terrifying. A tip of the hat needs to go to Martin Freeman, who is of course acting in front of a viewscreen but whose reactions really help sell what an awesome sight Smaug is. As for Cumberbatch’s other role as the Necromancer, there’s almost nothing to say as there’s almost nothing to the part in this film; clearly we’ll have to wait for the final chapter for the payoff of that role.
In the end, The Desolation of Smaug is a difficult film to review. Unlike The Two Towers, it is such a middle chapter that it almost feels unfair to talk about it without having seen the finale. I felt like An Unexpected Journey did as good a job as it could have considering the decision to split the book into three films, but I feel like The Desolation of Smaug deserves an incomplete. We know that Peter Jackson and company are capable of crafting an engaging middle chapter, but I can’t interpret their failure to do so here as a fault because they clearly didn’t set out to. Several alternate paths they could have taken seem obvious to me, but they chose none of them. As a result, the film instead feels like nothing more or less than a chunk of chapters from the middle of a book, which may work well in the end but for now feels like a way to fill the two year gap between the first and third films. It’s impossible to fault any individual thing in the production, the design, sets, costumes, effects, cast, performances, music, etc. are all top notch, but the whole here just feels like less than the sum of its parts. It feels like the first half of a complete film, with a yearlong intermission, which is a different direction than The Lord of the Rings. As such it will be impossible to have a solid perspective on The Desolation of Smaug until There and Back Again is released next year. I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug, sure, but I wish I could have just waited and watched it back-to-back with the finale.